Victor Emerson explained that the Acuity Research Group is a market research organizations that carries out user testing to ensure that products meet the needs of the people for whom they are intended. He acknowledged team members Steve Cutway of Queen's University and Jean Kozak of the University of Ottawa.
Reviewing the culture of product design, Emerson noted that traditional product design focuses on generating a product that will meet the needs of a target market large enough to justify developing the product. Many products targeted to persons with disabilities are "add-on" products that must be acquired at extra cost.
Universal or inclusive design stresses the idea of designing for the broadest target audience. Implicit in this goal is the belief that a product designed for people with a specific disability will also meet the needs of other users, and may be more usable over a broader range of conditions for persons without disabilities. However, if future product designers are not trained to consider universal design, this will not become part of their design culture, Emerson said.
Market sizing is a key issue. Specialty assistive products will have a small target market and hence a high cost. This hurts those who need the products most. Products adhering to universal design principles will address a broader market-and hence have the potential for lower cost-than those designed simply for a general group of people.
Because the export market is very important to Canada, it is advantageous if products designed in Canada can meet the needs of a broad range of users, Emerson said. For this goal to be achieved, future Canadian product designers must be trained in universal/inclusive design as part of their education.
Emerson outlined the objectives of an Acuity project that focuses on the education of product designers:
- Determine the extent to which universal/inclusive design forms a part of college and university curricula.
- Establish a baseline for monitoring the growth of universal/inclusive design in Canadian curricula over time.
- Support development of a tool to be used to influence educational policies in Canada, with the long-term goal of increasing Canadian competitiveness in the international market.
The method involved taking an inventory of colleges and universities to create a database of relevant departments/faculties, and conducting telephone interviews with key faculty members regarding the role of universal/inclusive design in the curricula. The disciplines to be studied include architecture, industrial design, graphic design, computer science, and engineering.
Emerson presented results found in the area of mechanical engineering as an example. He outlined the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board criteria for accreditation, which include a number of areas of expertise-but not ergonomics. Various departments were sampled at the university and college levels. About half of the respondents were not familiar with the terms "universal/inclusive design" or "designing for accessibility," and no institution sampled had a program or a faculty member focused on universal design. Twelve institutions include ergonomics/human factors in required courses for undergraduates, and another two provide it as an option. Six of the eight universities with graduate programs in mechanical engineering include ergonomics/human factors, but in optional courses. Students may learn about universal design from other sources, including specific courses and projects that depend on the interests of the teacher, courses in "parallel" departments, and co-op placements or internships.
With respect to mechanical engineering, the study concluded that neither universal design nor human factors are identified specifically in the accreditation criteria. Human factors and ergonomics are required in the curriculum of about 60% of mechanical engineering departments. Universal design is not presented as a formal discipline in mechanical engineering departments in Canadian colleges and universities.
The implication of these findings is that the next generation of Canadian product designers will have to learn about universal design after graduation. Possible sources of such education include professional development training, on-the-job training, and the corporate culture of the employer.
The next steps include:
- Expanding the scope of the study to include more institutions of higher learning;
- Establishing international barometers for training in universal/inclusive design (in co-operation with partners in other countries);
- Conducting re-evaluation at two- or three-year intervals to measure progress;
- Transforming data into a tool to influence policy-making in Canadian education;
- Popularizing upgraded curricula as a tool to increase Canadian competitiveness as an exporter.
Emerson concluded by providing his contact information: